UConn men’s basketball finally got back in the win column in a convincing manner on Sunday, taking Butler to the woodshed by a score of 86-56. Headed into Sunday, the Huskies had taken the loss in five of their past six games and even the one victory, against Creighton, was a nail-biter.
The offense was a sight for sore eyes
Shawn McGrath: After a lot of stagnant offense in recent weeks, the Huskies looked a lot better on Sunday. It was much more balanced, with four players getting into double figures, with all 10 rotation players, now that Samson Johnson has returned, entering the scoresheet with at least a bucket. The shot map was also an analytics dream, with just four shots inside the arc and outside the paint. This led to 1.30 points per possession and an easy win.
It wasn’t like the Huskies shot the lights out, either. UConn was a good, but sustainable, 7-19 (36.8 percent) from 3-point range and 53.3 percent on 2-pointers, which is right in line with the team’s season average of 53.8 percent. Dan Hurley has some good 3-point shooters and really athletic players that can get inside, along with some solid post presences in Donovan Clingan and Adama Sanogo. UConn was good at all three levels today for a win that it desperately needed.
Dan Madigan: I was pretty impressed with how the offense bounced back today. Against a weak Butler team without big man Manny Bates, the Huskies pounded it inside to Sanogo, who took advantage with an effortless 17 point, 14-board double-double. But outside of that, the backcourt seemed to get back on a track a bit. Jordan Hawkins had the ball in his hands seemingly more than ever today and the sophomore reaped the benefits with a game-high 20 points, taking advantage of midrange shots and ones around the rim as threes weren’t falling for him like usual. Tristen Newton posted back-to-back double figure games for the first time since November and did so by leaning into his strength — being aggressive and getting to the free throw line. If Newton can continue draw contact and make opponents pay, it should spread out the scoring load enough to make this offense look like the juggernaut it was earlier this season.
No second-half scaries
McGrath: The Huskies have been very poor in the second half since, and including, the loss to Xavier on December 31. In those six games, UConn had a point differential of plus-24 in the first half, which eroded to a ghastly minus-55 in the second half. Four of those games featured a double-digit negative differential, while the Huskies had the advantage in just one second half (by one point against Creighton). The most egregious example was the 14-point halftime lead against Seton Hall on Wednesday that turned into a one-point defeat after UConn didn’t make a field goal over the final 6:51 and scored just four points.
The Huskies ensured there would be no such shenanigans on Sunday. The home team led by 22 points at the break and opened it up with a 13-2 run over the first 5:04 of the half, extending the gulf between the two teams over 30, a plateau that Butler was never able to get below. They played a true 40-minute game for the first time in a month, which is an encouraging sign, even if it was against a bottom-tier team in the Big East.
“The coaches reminded us of what happened against Seton Hall. We wanted to come out and make the first punch unlike what we did on Wednesday,” Alex Karaban said.
Patrick Martin: Adama Sanogo is the Big East preseason player of the year for a reason. But his weaknesses have been amplified in 2023— he doesn’t read doubles fast enough to punish defenses. He was so good at that today, with a season-high three assists and only one turnover.
If he can find the cutters and read an offense correctly, it unlocks a whole new segment of UConn’s offense. Adama is borderline unguardable 1v1, so if no doubles are sent, the entire offense opens up for the Huskies. It wouldn't be hyperbole to say the their season depends on his development in this area, and that’s a testament to his reputation as a post scorer. UConn has enough weapons around Adama to make defenses pay if they double him. If he is efficient with his dribbles and keeps his head up like he did today versus Butler, then the Huskies will be back to their November-December self.
Hopefully Adama recognizes now that giving the ball up in double scenario’s benefits his positioning, and he doesn’t need to do it all himself — something he probably had to do his first two years. There was one play in the second half, where he kicked it to an open man, and eventually found the ball again after a rotation, that should exemplify on film the importance of moving the ball.
Madigan: Newton may not be the best player on this team or even one of the first options on offense, but I think he’s the key for this team going forward. Outside of Hawkins, Sanogo and Karaban, he’s one of the few backcourt players that has the ability to create his own shot and finish around the rim. He also excels at getting to the free throw line, where he shoots over 80 percent from the stripe. If he can continue getting to the line, it not only adds another dimension to the offense, but gives him the ability to kick out to open shooters on the perimeter as the game progresses. UConn is 10-1 when Newton takes five or more free throws this season — if Newton can stay aggressive and get to the line, he may be the key to reigniting the offense when things get stagnant.
Samson Johnson Returns
Madigan: After missing most of the season with a foot injury, Samson Johnson was able to ease his way back into the rotation against Butler with two points and two rebounds in 12 minutes. Johnson certainly had some rust to shake off, but brings incredible length, athleticism and floor running ability to the four spot, presenting a wildly different look than what Karaban can offer. While Johnson can guard multiple positions and has been regarded as a quality shotblocker, he will have a tough time unseating Karaban in the starting five. The freshman is shooting 44.8 percent from three in the month of January and has established himself as one of the Huskies’ most reliable scorers, reaching double figures in four of his last six games. However, Karaban has frequently been picked on defensively and struggled especially with Zach Freemantle of Xavier, who UConn plays next. Karaban won’t be out of the starting lineup, but it’s very possible we see a lot of Johnson Wednesday night in an effort to contain the Xavier big man.
“I was so excited to see him back. He’s been working hard since the summer. Battling against him every day has definitely made me better, made him better. I was so happy to see the crowd go crazy for him,” Karaban said. “He can defend multiple positions, he’s a great player.”